Lost in Japan
A plain garden gate took us out of the park through someone’s backyard. Sean was unworried about the possibility the owner would come out with a shotgun, so I suppose he must’ve been well-adjusted. Perhaps his grandma held some leverage with the powers that be. No matter the legality of our presence, it was a small yard with a similar gate on the opposite side. The path between the tea plants was free of a wilted leaf, but the opposing wall was laced with small mandarins that had fallen off their trees. I picked one up. There was some mud on its skin. I would have eaten it, but that would have been stealing. I dropped it.
As we exited the yard and properly aligned ourselves with the road, the daycare children and their teachers made their rounds from up the block. It was great luck for me that I now had a chance to engage with the locality. “Konnichiwa,” the teachers and I said, exchanging bows and polite chuckles at the coincidence as the kids gleamed with innocent confusion.
The road surrounded the large pond, occasionally breaking off into a cement or brick pedestrian path. There was enough space for the waterfront properties, kayak landings, and a few mounds of sand-turned-fishing piers to not feel oppressive to the eyes. We circled around the perimeter, talking about video games we’d played and would like to play, passing under trees, and waving at an old man fishing. At some point, we stopped to enjoy the view. There was a slight rippling of the water that could be from wind, fish, or distant ducks on a swim. Who should I see standing no more than a meter away on one of the docks, their contemplation of the insignificance of man before nature interrupted by our shared glance, than one of the little girls from the daycare center? It was as though our wanderings had not been mindless but predetermined by some higher force as an offer of a chance to affirm my habitation of the present and forever instill myself, however thin a slice, into the memories of some distant place and people.
“Anata wa kawaii desu!” I shouted across to her, making sure to use the proper word, and smiling with confidence.
Her once blissful eyes widened. Her mouth fell agape. Her blinks slapped the smile off my face. She ran away.
Confused, I looked to Sean who, having a similar expression as the girl, said meekly, “Dude, that was so awkward.”
“What, why? Isn’t it normal to call kids cute?”
“I mean, maybe, but the way you said it was so forceful. You basically said, ‘YOU ARE CUTE!’ ” He jabbed my shoulder with each word.
“You should’ve said--”
“No, just kawaii.”
“Why didn’t you say something?” I pouted with the weight of my sins on my shoulders.
“I would’ve if you told me what you were gonna do.”
Here was the man who had claimed I was a Japanese prodigy, who had so stressed the importance of impulse when it comes to the composition of feeling, correcting me. “That would’ve ruined the whole point!” Of course, I couldn't extrapolate on what that point was. I, feeling the encroaching judgment at having spoiled the pitiful offering I had been gifted and at the guilt of having to subject Sean not only to that moment of embarrassment but to force him to admit, through correction, that all his previous flatteries were just that, flatteries, and not an accurate assessment at my propensity for language acclimation, dashed off. For, I am not so unself-aware as to have been unable to name the point of having spoken: to show off.
Once the spur of the moment began to lighten, I took notice of the different angle from which I stood beside the pond. Not too far were two pink trees. How lucky! I took a few photos at a distance as though if I were to come close, I would taint the quiet scene as I had ruined the encounter with the child and had done the day before by not grasping Sean’s haiku, and would not be able to look at the photos with fond memory.
Sean arrived, panting, hands on his knees. I realized the full strain I had placed upon Sean. Time, money, and his body. How often did Sean indulge in day-long walks? For that matter, how often did I? Had I not prided myself on my unathleticism, as though that proved I were indeed part of the intelligentsia? I walked over to Sean.
“You’re getting the true Japanese experience now, huh.” Sean leaped at the opportunity to dismiss any comment that would spoil the moment. For, while out of breath, he was not out of spirit. He brushed me aside as he approached the trees. He pulled a branch down across his eyes. “I could take your picture if you’d like.”
“Huh? Why would I want a picture of me?”
“Because anata wa kawaii.”
“Shut up,” I said but complied. “It’s so embarrassing. How do you say embarrassing? Like, I’m so embarrassed I’m gonna shoot myself.”
“Hazukashii.” He smiled to himself as he took a few pictures. Then, looking through them, began to laugh. “Look, your face matches the trees!”
“What?” I shouted and pulled the phone from his hand.
“I didn’t think it would show, haha! Anata wa totemo, totemo kawaii.”
“Oh yeah?” He was right, of course. Those photos would have to be deleted. “Well, you’re anata-nnoying!” Sean’s laughter grew louder. He had to support himself on the trunk, slowly sinking to the ground. Sean was more like himself when he was laughing and it felt like a better alternative to our previous hanami. I couldn’t help but smile. I took a seat beside him. “Here, I think I owe you a haikyuu from last time.” The slight mention of our tussle seemed to sober his mood. “Give us trespasses / lead us to sweet temptations / muddy mandarins.”
The haiku seemed to prevent a repeat of the day before. Sean listened with his eyes glued to me, as though reading any slight twitches in my face that may reveal a deeper meaning. At the end, he nodded, before returning a somewhat less happy smile. “I like it. Not much in terms of linking to my verse, though, I guess I’ll let it slide since mandarins bloom around the same time as dogwoods.” He found more meaning in it than me.
“Oh, so a dogwood’s a type of flower?”
“Huh? What did you think it was.”
“I thought it was like 'dog' space 'wood.' Like, a fancy way of saying a stick you picked up to play fetch with.”
“No, dude, it’s the Virginia state flower and tree. We were taught this in elementary school.”
“Oh, really? I guess I forgot.” I would have continued and said, ‘I don’t really care,’ but I was wise enough to catch myself. It was clear Sean had thought his haikus through more.
“And when Japan gave the US all those cherry blossoms, the US gave us dogwoods. Though, I think they all died.”
“The horrors of war.”
He chuckled. “Something like that.” As though war was brewing in the sky, the lingering clouds burst forth a slight drizzle. “This might get bad.” He said, standing up and surveying the village for somewhere to take shelter. “Up there is the cultural center,” He pointed to a small hill that acted as a flat step before a higher peak of the mountains. “We could go there.” We started to climb a small path that was raked on the side of the mountain. There were more, younger, cherry blossoms that, like all we had seen, were not yet in bloom. The pond and village never left our sight, though blocked a little by a tall bare tree. The rain tapping against the leaves was the closest it came to thunder.
Sean got a call from his grandmother. As they talked, I looked at the town. I had walked through those streets, around that pond, and talked to some of those people--if against their will. If it wasn’t drizzling and were late April in the afternoon, it would have been the perfect snapshot for an arbitrary travel guide that plastered the words, “Visit Japan” across the agriculture and roofs.
He hung up. “Everything alright?” I asked.
"Yeah, she was just worried about us in the rain.” We continued up the path. Pink and green metal slides peaked out from the trees and soon followed the backside of the building. “She wanted to bring us umbrellas. I told her not to.”
“That’s nice, but, yeah, kind of pointless.”
We went inside.